When we think of what it means to taste something the first thing that comes to mind is our taste buds. Taste buds are actually specialized cells that are capable of detecting certain chemical signals given off by the foods that we eat. There are apparently 5 types of these taste cells, each can detect one of 5 flavors; sweet, sour, salt, bitter and savory (from meats or broth) and similar to mixing of primary colors to create any color imaginable it’s possible to mix these 5 flavors to create all the tastes we experience. In recent years it has been discovered by scientists that humans possess taste cells in other parts of the body! Thomas Finger was the first scientist to discover this fact back in 2002 when he performed an experiment on mice in his lab at the University of Colorado. Finger “tagged” taste cell genes by binding to them a fluorescent protein marker, as these tagged mice developed he was then able to see any taste cells in their tissues because they would glow in the dark (or under certain lighting conditions). What he noticed was that these mice had taste cells in their noses! Weird, right?
Well come to find out that we humans also have taste cells in our nose. What’s even more strange is that in the years since Finger’s discovery in 2002 it has been shown that humans not only have taste cells in nose tissue but in our stomachs, intestines and lungs. It sounds crazy but it’s true. Think about it like this; when we eat something our taste cells tell the brain whether or not that food is filled with sugar or salt. This is useful because our body needs those things in order operate efficiently and so we are enabled to detect foods that are nutritious. However when we taste something bitter it often means that the food has gone bad, maybe it has bacteria on it and it could potentially make us sick. Now we might just spit that food out but what if we eat something that has bacteria on it but the taste buds in our mouths don’t quite catch it (say we’ve added seasoning to a piece of bad steak)? Well, once that bad meat gets to our stomach it may then be possible for the taste buds there to detect the presence of bacteria and our body will hopefully respond by causing us to vomit. The same sort of thing happens in our intestines. If the taste buds there detect bacteria (or some other harmful agent or substance) then the body will respond by forcing the food out the other way causing diarrhea. These taste cells also allow our bodies to initiate functions like digesting food once it’s detected and pushing it through our digestive track, and our bodies do this without requiring us to think about it. I should note that the reason why our brains don’t register the signals from the taste cells in the gut the same way it registers our mouth’s taste cell signals is that the signals are sent to different parts of the brain. So why we “sense” flavors in our mouth we thankfully only “respond” to taste signals from our stomach and intestines. Another interesting area possessing taste cells is our lung tissue. We’re constantly breathing in small particles of who-knows-what through the air and similar to the stomach our lung tissue can sense harmful agents and eventually cause us to cough or sneeze which dispels of the dangerous particles.
This is all very cool and interesting but what is most promising about this discovery is the impact it may have on medicine and diseases. Let’s consider asthma and diabetes. In asthma patients the lungs’ airways are constricted making it very difficult to breath. When scientists find that bitter substances can cause taste cells in the lungs to trigger an opening response in these airways it becomes a promising means of potential treatment. When we talk about diabetes the issue is related to the insulin hormone that helps regulate the uptake of sugar in the blood to other cells in the body. When someone has diabetes the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin from the pancreas or it simply doesn’t respond to the insulin and the result is that excess sugar builds up in the blood causing all sorts of perilous ailments. It’s the sugar taste cells that first secrete their own hormone which in turn causes the pancreas to secrete insulin so in the case of the body not making enough insulin (type-1 diabetes) the hope is to use these gut cells to increase the body’s response to the presence of sugar. Whether these gut taste cells can help people with type-2 diabetes (people who don’t respond to insulin in general) is a legitimate question since the general consensus is that type-2 diabetes is most likely caused by a defective insulin receptor. Nonetheless we should remain optimistic that research related to these multifaceted taste cells can and will lead to the treatment of such illness and the betterment of many people’s lives.
For more information on this topic and other scientific and educational findings please visit us at http://www.massacadsciences.org/.
Written by: Matthew Panechelli